Phil Lempert on the Environmental Impact of Online Shopping
Phil Lempert is a television and radio news reporter, newspaper columnist, author, consumerologist, and food marketing expert. For more than 25 years, Lempert, an expert analyst on consumer behavior, marketing trends, new products, and the changing retail landscape, has identified and explained impending trends to consumers and some of the most prestigious companies worldwide. Known as The Supermarket Guru®, Lempert is a distinguished author and speaker who alerts customers and business leaders to impending corporate and consumer trends, and empowers them to make educated purchasing and marketing decisions.
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Jeff Bezos, says that online shopping will save the planet – that the process “consistently generates less carbon than driving to a store." Shopping will save the planet. Amazon engaged the Oliver Wyman research firm to prove it. Analyzing the environmental impact of e-commerce versus physical retail in eight European countries, Oliver Wyman found offline shopping resulted in close to 3 times more greenhouse gas emissions than online shopping. The huge fleets of delivery vans reduce car traffic by between four and nine times the amount they generate.
The frailty of the study is that they looked only at 3 product types: fashion, books and consumer electronics. While they didn’t look at grocery deliveries Ocado has been telling its retailers that “shopping with us is now greener than walking to your local supermarket” a decade ago. In the Oliver Wyman study, offline shopping for those 3 categories was found to generate more carbon emissions due to 2 crucial factors. These were the energy consumption of the building and the consumer’s travel to the store. One key difference in food is the need to keep things temperature controlled. Ocado CEO Tim Steiner said that transitioning the company’s delivery fleet to electric vehicles was “more challenging for grocery than it is for parcels” because of the need to chill products. The limitations of “how much energy you can store in a battery” means Ocado’s use of electric vehicles is so far limited to urban locations. However when they looked and compared to the environmental impact of keeping physical supermarkets cool.
Supermarkets account for 31% of energy use in UK retail, a 2019 study found, much of which is spent regulating store temperatures. Refrigeration alone accounts for close to half the UK’s national electricity usage of supermarkets, representing approximately 1.5% of the UK’s electrical energy demand. Back to the US and Bezos, he says that, a single delivery van trip can “take approximately 100 round trip car journeys off the road on average”. Last year, Bezos revealed Amazon scientists had developed a model to compare the carbon intensity of US customers ordering Whole Foods Market groceries online (which don’t arrive in a chilled van) versus them driving to their nearest Whole Foods store. “The study found that, averaged across all basket sizes, online grocery deliveries generate 43% lower carbon emissions per item compared to shopping in stores.
Not everyone agrees. Amazon’s key competitor, Walmart, issued a study that found brick & mortar purchases had a smaller carbon footprint than delivered ones but that was in 2017, almost 5 years ago, and a lot has changed since then. The Walmart report found that the online channel, on average, produced more emissions per item for three main reasons: additional packaging, customers purchasing fewer items per online transaction, and multi-item orders often resulting in multiple deliveries. Yet another reason to argue for click & collect being the best alternative for the shopper, the store and the environment.